Optimising land-use change to safeguard the environment
In 2019, the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Forestry Commission commissioned RSK to identify the best locations for land-use change to deliver optimum environmental benefits to water quality, flood risk and biodiversity in England. To achieve this, we created an innovative approach to national strategic and catchment-scale land-use change planning by partnering with RSK company ADAS, which offered expertise in biodiversity and water quality to complement our considerable expertise in flood risk.
The initial project case study focused on the Poole Harbour river catchments in Dorset and the River Skell from source to the River Laver catchment in Yorkshire. These catchments cover a diverse range of agricultural and natural land uses and enabled an in-depth study of the techniques in a short period. RSK organised the flood risk scoring framework, which provided a comprehensive analysis of the significant factors in a unit of land that influence flooding. The scoring framework was divided into inherent flood risk and modifiable flood risk to distinguish between unchangeable factors, such as natural geography and geology, and changeable factors such as land use. The highest-scoring areas indicated the land to prioritise for land-use change. We used a genetic algorithm to optimise the combined score for the environmental outcomes and minimise the cost and effort. The priority areas identified by the algorithm were mapped using a GIS.
RSK also contributed to the development a set of national maps from which to coordinate and target land-use change; a toolkit for identifying sites with good potential to deliver synergistic outcomes; the potential costs and benefits across the environmental policy outcomes; the feasibility of a nationally coordinated and locally informed approach to land-use change; and evidence to inform a business case for further work.
The final report detailed the methodology for generating priority areas and map production, and analysed the results. We also incorporated a standalone document underpinning the methodology. The report also included the maps showing priority areas for land-use conversion, including the habitat type it should be converted to for each catchment.
In the long term, this project will lead to a decrease in flood risk and increases in water quality and biodiversity across England that will benefit communities and the environment. The results of this study will also inform future Environment Agency, Natural England and Forestry Commission work.